It was in 1958 when Leasider Dr. Tom Pashby’s 13-year-old son Bill was knocked out cold on the ice at Leaside Gardens. No helmet.
Result #1: Concussion. A serious one.
Result #2: For 57 years Leaside has been a prominent part of the effort to prevent concussions and to understand how best to treat them.
Pashby became Canada’s best-known and most passionate sports safety pioneer throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Mandatory helmets for all minor hockey players, penalties for hits from behind, and better safety standards for children’s sports equipment are among the changes that can be traced to his advocacy.
Plus the Dr. Tom Pashby Sports Safety Foundation, which has funded concussion research projects across Canada as well as an awareness program at the Concussion Centre at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital in North Leaside.
There Dr. Nick Reed heads an ongoing study funded through the University of Toronto on acquired brain injury. The Pashby grant supports a weekly Concussion & You education program with free sessions for the public.
Reed has done baseline testing on young athletes from the Leaside Hockey Association, the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association and other area sports clubs.
“Baseline testing assesses an individual on performance before an injury (in our case concussion) so that if they go on to experience a concussion, we can re-assess post-injury and compare. It helps to individualize treatment,” he says.
“We’ve tested nearly 1,000 youth so far. This information will provide a better understanding of how kids respond to concussion, and what are the best tests to use specifically with youth before and after a concussion to best inform recovery and readiness to return to daily activities (including sports).
“Pediatric concussion research is a very young field of science,” he says. “There’s still so much we don’t know about how kids’ brains recover after a concussion. Which tests are the best ones for assessment? Are there differences between boys and girls? There’s some indication that females have higher concussion rates but we’re not sure why.
“One thing we know for sure is that kids are getting concussions in all kinds of activities and they can happen anywhere. That’s why it’s so important that this research continue.”
Pashby’s efforts, which won him the Order of Canada in 1982 and induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 (and the Leaside Sports Hall of Fame two years ago) led to many changes at Leaside Gardens arena for young players.
Both the Leaside Hockey Association (THA) and the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association (TLGHA) have enacted risk-reduction policies and strict protocols that must be followed when a head injury incident does occur.
“We now have paramedics at every game,” says LHA president Tim McCutcheon. “That started several years ago. It’s an expensive thing but we’d rather err on the side of safety. We’ve always had it at the select tourneys.”
“All our select and GTHL [Greater Toronto Hockey League] team trainers have to go through a mandatory training course that includes concussion protocols. Our Return to Play policy is mandated by the GTHL and a player needs a doctor’s note to return. Head injuries are documented on the game sheet, the refs are required to record each incident and so the GTHL is alerted and tracks these stats.”
Leaside’s TLGHA (“The largest girls’ hockey association in Ontario, and likely in Canada too, as well as one of the oldest,” says President Jennifer Smith), makes the safety of its players the top priority.
“We invest considerable time and effort in informing and educating our hockey community about concussion safety,” says VP Roanne Argyle.
“We have a head trainer role on our board of directors whose role is to mentor trainers in all aspects of player safety. And we work hard to communicate safety policies to all team personnel and volunteers.” The league hosted a concussion education session at Holland Bloorview this past season.
The TLGHA also requires that all teams have a certified trainer present at games, practices and dryland training. Trainers have the final say as to whether or not a player participates in a game or practice.
There is no body-checking in the TLGHA at any level. On the boys’ side, says LHA President McCutcheon, “the more competitive leagues – AAA and GTHL – will continue to have checking above a certain age; it’s being phased out in the less competitive leagues and there’s no checking at all in house league play.”
Still a long way to go on concussion treatment
Two local families have learned first-hand that when a concussion happens, there are still at least as many questions as there are answers.
Mary Rychlik was 16 and playing for the Leaside Wildcats when she suffered her third concussion, in February 2012. “I didn’t realise how serious it was until after the game when the big headaches started,” she recalls.
The symptoms lasted for months. But by the fall Rychlik was mostly symptom-free and hoping to return to hockey in January. She had a doctor’s written permission to play again but her parents were concerned. “They sat me down and asked, ‘What if I got another one? Would it be more serious? Would there be permanent brain damage?’ ”
She decided that hockey was no longer in her future. “It was the toughest decision of my life so far,” she says. Three years later she occasionally gets a headache “when doing math or something like that,” but is otherwise symptom-free and doing well. She just completed her first year of an arts program at Queen’s University.
So far Lucas Flemming hasn’t been so lucky. “His world has changed,” says his dad, Stan Flemming, following the November 2014 concussion when his son was 12. “Seven months later his balance is off, he can’t ride a bike. He can hardly read. He’s disoriented, and everything is crooked – he sees things on a slant.
“Some things are better,” he says. “He’s come back in personality and, by May, he was back in school for half days. But he’s got a long way to go.”
The Flemmings have been to a chiropractor, psychologist, psychiatrist and three neurologists, a vision therapist in Guelph and the Carrick Brain Institute in Atlanta.
“In our opinion the different professions seem to be working in silos. They need to better appreciate other points of view and work together.
“Once you get a clean MRI, you’re on your own,” Flemming says.